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Daniel Wasserman: The improbable banner

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 31, 2013

For more than a decade, it seemed like the only Final Four banners that might ever be lifted to the Crisler Center rafters would be the banners from the banished 1992 and 1993 teams.

While the Michigan men’s basketball program suffered through losing seasons and fired coaches, May 2013 was seen as a light at the end of the tunnel — the only optimism that could be found amongst the rubble of a once-mighty basketball school.

May 7, just five weeks from now, will come and go, likely without any meaningful landmark events. It’s become glaringly obvious that those banners will likely be forever stored away from the public scope. In their place — in the unlikeliest turn of events — a new banner will hang.

The yellow letters, cast on a blue banner, will let the world know that the 2012-2013 Michigan basketball team reached the Final Four. A spotlight will forever be cast on that banner, but in its shadow, the stories of the improbable journey will remain immortalized.

Florida had gained control of the momentum after cutting a 17-point halftime deficit into 12 just four minutes into the second half.

A Mitch McGary layup put the Wolverines back up by 14. Florida’s Erik Murphy grabbed the ball and made the simplest of inbound passes — a little too simple, it turned out. Out of nowhere came freshman point guard Spike Albrecht, who scooped up the lazy pass and finished an up-and-under acrobatic layup between two defenders.

It was a 16-point game, but in essence, it was game over. The Gators never made another push.

Murphy wasn’t the only one who never saw Albrecht coming. A year ago, the point guard wasn’t even a blip on Michigan’s radar. The Wolverine coaching staff had only previously seen him because he was on McGary, Max Bielfeldt and Glenn Robinson III’s AAU team.

It was almost a year ago that Beilein first reached out to the unheralded recruit, and a week later — on April 6 of last year — Albrecht committed. Burke was rumored to have decided to turn pro, and Michigan was desperate for a point guard.

Albrecht was likely headed to Appalachian State but was still uncommitted.

“I didn’t have any Division I offers,” Albrecht said. “So coach Beilein — I can’t thank him enough for giving me this opportunity, and I’ll never stop working.”

He didn’t stop working, not in the offseason, and not when Murphy lackadaisically inbounded the ball.

Corey Person was calling for the ball. He wanted to dunk in what was likely his last collegiate basketball appearance. Instead, fellow senior Matt Vogrich pulled up from deep and drilled a 3-pointer, placing the final exclamation point on a historic Elite Eight game.

It didn’t matter to Person, though.

“It’s everything I ever envisioned when I first walked on campus with coach Beilein,” he said. “I told him my goal was to get Michigan basketball back to where it once was.”

And he did that. Last year. In his senior year.

In his first senior campaign, Person was a key behind-the-scenes leader on a Big Ten Championship team, the 2011-12 Michigan squad. Alongside fellow fourth-year players Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, he was rewarded with a jersey in last season’s senior night ceremony. He cried after Ohio eliminated the Wolverines from last year’s NCAA Tournament because it was his last game.

Until it wasn’t.

He had redshirted his freshman year and was thus eligible for a fifth year, which he decided to take over the summer. This year, he was given another commemorative jersey at his second career Senior Night.

“When I was taking my time and making my decision on whether I was going to come back or not, I just looked at it and I said that, ‘We were going have all our pieces,’ ” Person said. “I feel like throughout the whole year, my only goal was to get this team to this point where we’re at right now, cutting down the nets, going to the Final Four.

“It’s exactly what I envisioned when I stepped on campus, and this is what I envisioned last year when I made my decision to come back for a fifth year.”

None of Beilein’s first 671 career wins earned him a Gatorade shower. After 34 years of coaching and 672 wins, Beilein just didn’t see it coming.

“All I know is I saw this red substance, this red coming at me,” Beilein said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s one of those.’

“I was trying not to drown.”

Beilein made it out alive, but his shirt didn’t. An hour later, it was hanging in an empty locker cubby.

“You know, I’m not going to wear anything with red on it, that’s for sure,” he joked.

Instead, Beilein said he’d be forced to wear a sweat suit home — a rarity for him.

“I’ve always worn the tie home, whether it was a five-hour trip,” he said.

But there was a day when the five-hour trip wasn’t a chartered flight home from Dallas, where he can watch clips from the game that just ended, but instead long van trips as the head coach at Division II LeMoyne when AM radio was his only option.

“We did a lot of van travel, and I’d be driving one, and my assistant would be driving the other,” he said. “I’d be listening to Syracuse playing Georgetown.”

Nearly 30 years later, Syracuse, of course, is the Wolverines’ opponent in the Final Four. Beilein recalled listening to the radio call of Villanova winning the 1985 National Championship, a place he never imagined he’d reach.

“Absolutely not. I dreamed of it.”

In his first year at Michigan, the 2007-08 campaign, a Final Four appearance was nearly as unlikely. The Wolverines finished 10-22 and the majority of the small fan base that actually cared about the basketball program thought Beilein — his offensive and defensive schemes, his recruiting, his lack of public persona — would never win him anything in the Big Ten, let alone in the tournament.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” said senior Matt Vogrich, who came to Michigan the following year, when it made a shocking late-season run to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. “We trusted coach Beilein, all of us. He said he was going to build the program up, and his confidence never wavered.

“Everyone can eat their words. He’s the right man for the job at Michigan.”

Daniel Wasserman can be reached at dwass@umich.edu, or on Twitter @d_wasserman